An ‘early-years revolution’ must be started to improve support and services for children, parents and families, says the Health and Social Care Committee.
According to the report, the first 1000 days of life, from conception to age 2, is a critical phase during which the foundations of a child's development are laid, with more than a million new brain connections made every second. If a child's body and brain develop well then their chances of a healthy life are improved.
Exposure to adversity during this period can have lifelong consequences. A study in The Lancet in 2017 found that people who experienced at least four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were more likely to get heart disease, cancer and many mental health problems than those with no experience of ACEs. They were also thirty times more likely to have attempted suicide.
‘Quite simply, I want this country to be the most supportive and caring place in the world that a child could be born into,’ said Dr Williams MP, a practicing GP who led the inquiry. ‘There is a crisis in children's mental health in this country. But all we are seeing are cuts to health visiting, children's centre closures and increasing child poverty. Government must now show inspiring leadership to help children get the best possible start in life. If our country is serious about prevention and reducing health inequalities then we must make massive investments and drive coordinated action right at the start of life.’
The report also calls for the Government's Healthy Child Programme to be revised, improved and given greater impetus. The Committee recommends that the programme should be expanded to focus on the health of the whole family, begin before conception, deliver a greater continuity of care for children, parents and families during this period and extend visits beyond age 2.5 years.
Under the current programme, all families are entitled to five visits from health visiting services up to age 2.5 years. The Committee recommends that an extra visit should be introduced at age 3-3.5 years to check children are on course to achieve the level of development deemed necessary to start school. ‘Health visitors work on the frontline in local communities and make vital interventions from birth, helping to prevent illness and promote health and wellbeing – however, Government ambitions to increase the size of this workforce in England were not underpinned by a comprehensive workforce plan and as a result numbers are now flat-lining,’ said Fiona Smith, RCN professional lead for children and young people’s nursing.
‘The committee’s call for an “Early Years Revolution” is one that the government and NHS England must demonstrate they share through investment, not just in health visitors, but in all parts of the nursing workforce that support children and young people. Anything less will see this revolution remain words on a page with families missing out on the very interventions that can be the difference between leading a healthy life, and not.’